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Belittling Tormentors Allows us to Be Free

Through the process of the ten plagues, the Jews saw the Egyptians for what they were, just another group of petrified humans.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A friend from New Jersey, who lived through Hurricane Sandy, as did I, called and asked me why God did not send a similar storm against Egypt and Pharaoh. “One plague and that would have done it,” he said. “The Egyptians would have been begging to let the Jews go. So why did God insist on ten?”

I answered him that there are two kinds of freedom. Political freedom and psychological freedom, freedom of the body and freedom of the mind. If God’s intention was to simply liberate the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, He could indeed have sent a single catastrophic event against them, like a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami. It worked against Japan when two devastating atomic bombs brought the Japanese to unconditional surrender.

But even as the Jews were liberated by an external event, they would have remained mentally enslaved.

Here’s why.

Slavery is an institution that is maintained through fear. The slave dreads his master and therefore does his bidding. The German philosopher Hegel said, in essence, that way back at the dawn of history everyone was equal. But one day, two primordial combatants had a fight. As they struggled over whatever the issue was – a cave, a woman, a hunt – one of the combatants became fearful of the other and in that moment the relationship of master and slave was born.

But God’s intention was that no man should have any master except God alone. That’s why there are so many exhortations in the Bible to live boldly and cast away all fear, as I detailed in my book Face Your Fear.

And it’s not just a physical master that we should not fear. The woman who goes on a date cannot fear being judged by the man whom she will meet. If she does she’ll be nervous, betray insecurity, and surrender to a physical side of the relationship that might impede the development of true intimacy. A wife cannot fear her husband. That’s what leads women to remain in abusive relationships. A man cannot fear his boss. If he does, he will allow himself to be exploited and abused and his job will become a form of slavery.

Overcoming fear is the only road to true equality and liberty.

One of the most effective methods to triumph over fear is to cease mentally aggrandizing the object of your fear. The Israelites looked at the Egyptians as supermen. They had built the ancient world’s most glorious civilization. They won wars and established a vast empire. They beat the Jews mercilessly and dominated them completely. So God’s plan in sending the plagues was to humanize the Egyptians in Jewish eyes so such a degree that the fear would disappear. In order for the Jews to be liberated not just politically and externally but mentally and psychologically, the Jews had to see the big and strong Egyptians become utterly helpless, vulnerable, and powerless.

In this context, we can begin to understand the ten plagues and their order. First, God attacks the Egyptians water supply by turning the Nile river into blood. There is nothing quite so feeble as a man who is desperate just for a drink of water. Extreme thirst becomes all consuming and demonstrates our total dependency on something that is usually abundant and economical. But even this the Egyptians could not provide for themselves.

Next, the plague of frogs had the robust and resilient Egyptians freaking out over reptiles. Like an elephant that’s afraid of a mouse, Egyptian might was exposed as a fraud.

After that came the plague of lice, with the Egyptians taskmasters who once seemed so mighty itching uncontrollably and being utterly humbled by a tiny insect. Next, wild beasts roamed through the land and the Egyptians ran scared like frightened children.

You get the picture. The story culminates with the Egyptians being afraid even of the dark, like small kids, and then, the last plague, confronting the fear of death, that which reminds us all of our vulnerability and mortality. Through this process, the Jews saw the Egyptians for what they were. Just another group of petrified humans who had gained dominion over another people by being vicious bullies. But there were easily bullied themselves.

One of the mysteries of the Second World War is why Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted on the unconditional surrender of the axis powers. Surely the war would not have dragged on as long, his critics say, if he had come to some sort of armistice with Hitler and Mussolini. Millions of lives might have been spared. But Roosevelt would have none of it.

Why did he take such an extreme position?

Hitler terrorized the world and, through his mass rallies, blitzkriegs, and panzer divisions gave off the aura of having built a nation of invincible Neitzschean ubermenschen. What Roosevelt wanted was not just the physical liberation of Europe but the psychological freedom of the entire world. He needed to bring Germany to its knees, to hold up Hitler like a rat in his bunker, in order for all the world to see that Hitler’s superiority was a farce and there was no need to ever fear him. Indeed, the freedom from fear was one of the four freedoms that Roosevelt famously promised America in his 1941 speech.

The same applies to the destruction of so much of Japan, whose Emperor was revered as a god and whom MacArthur purposely humiliated by insisting he come to visit the General in order to show the Japanese they need never fear him again. The famous picture of the diminutive Emperor standing next to the tall and stately general almost makes a mockery of Hirohito.

One of the tragic curiosities of the Civil War is that even after six hundred thousand Americans died, in essence, to end slavery, it simply continued largely through the institution of segregation and Jim Crow. Why didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment work?

I believe the reason is the same. Lincoln was a great man and he sent the northern armies into battle to rescue the Union and to free the slaves. But what he granted was political freedom. Shortly after the war criminal organizations like the KKK sought to reestablish black fear of whites so that slavery could be practiced by other means.

It was only when, ninety years later, Martin Luther King sent black children into battle against Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses that African-Americans saw firsthand that these seemingly gargantuan, Paul Bunyan-sized racists, were really pathetic, scared thugs who would ultimately bend before the will of children.

And that’s when the abomination and plague of American slavery finally came to an end.

About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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